Why You Eat What You Eat

Habit Science


Your body is a complicated machine. It uses food as fuel — the biological mechanisms behind this process are fascinating. Your hypothalamus, brain stem and vagus nerve work together with hormones in your gut to tell you what to eat and when to eat it.

Even though you’re a machine that functions as it should, you have on and off switches, too. Behavior and culture can many times override the biological function of eating and tell you when and what to eat. You might be full from dinner, but a late movie means you eat popcorn with a soda. You know that kale is good for you, but your culture tells you a green smoothie is the opposite of delicious.

It’s complicated, right?

Did you know that your food habits are what they are as a result of many different factors? They include:

  • Your taste
  • Your habits
  • The availability of food
  • Your beliefs and attitudes about food
  • Your health status
  • Eating behaviors of friends and family
  • Stress and coping
  • Cultural norms
  • Religious practices and holidays
  • Isolation or family structure
  • Food associations and memories
  • Food marketing

You might think these factors don’t influence you, but humans are more influenced by social and environmental factors than we like to believe. In one study, one third of people said their food intake was based on the food intake of others.

Understanding what drives your decision to eat or not eat might help you get over a few hurdles as you’re on your way to building new food habits. Do you associate eating at work with feeling shame? Identify why you feel shame eating around others so you can integrate healthy foods into your work day. Do you overeat on Sundays because that’s your family tradition? Identify how you might make different choices at family dinner next week.

If you’ve recognized what influences your food choices and still struggle to make a change, there are a few science-based strategies that might help you get on track.

  • Set both long and short term goals. They can be as simple as eating blueberries (いちごに変える)tomorrow morning or avoiding eating out for the week.
  • Keep a food journal. Writing down what you eat helps you process why you are eating what you eat when you eat it.
  • Get social support. Enroll a friend to start the MIND-Diet with you.
  • Identify a coping strategy you can use when you feel stressed. The next time you want to eat under stress, rely on your new coping strategy instead.

Nutrition is one domain in which good choices add up quickly. Take a minute to make a list of what you’ve eaten in the past 24 hours. Then, write down why you chose to eat what you ate. You might identify some interesting patterns that can help you make better food choices and build good habits.

References

  • Hilliard, M. E., Riekert, K. A., Ockene, J. K., & Pbert, L. (2018). The handbook of health behavior change. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
  • Robinson, E., & Field, M. (2015). Awareness of social influence on food intake. An analysis of two experimental studies. Appetite, 85, 165–170. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.11.019